Emperor Xuanzong's Journey to Shu

"Emperor Xuanzong's Journey to Shu" has long been deemed the best example of the Green and Blue Landscape genre in traditional Chinese painting.

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“Emperor Xuanzong’s Journey to Shu” has long been deemed the best example of the Green and Blue Landscape genre in China. The silk has turned yellowish, but one can still discern the bright green and blue, which makes it very different from monochrome ink landscape paintings in the Chinese history. 

Laurence C. S. Sickman (1907-1988), an American art historian and Sinologist, once said that landscape painting has been “China’s greatest contribution to the art of the world.”

However, landscapes did not evolve into an independent genre of art in China until the sixth and seventh centuries. They were initially only used as backgrounds for people who were traveling, farming or hunting and for animals roaming in the wild.

During the prosperous Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), landscapes had gradually established a firm foothold among painters and artists painted landscapes in a full blaze of color. This style was later labeled the Green and Blue Landscape genre. Such artworks are known for the use of bright copper green and cobalt blue. Some paintings also feature etched golden outlines to highlight the mountains and rocks, adding a little shine to the piece.

Most art historians believe Li Sixun (AD 651-716) and his son Li Zhaodao (AD 675-741) were among the founders of the Green and Blue Landscape genre.

Li Sixun was a distant relative of the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty. He was a great painter and a renowned military leader, once holding the title of Great General of the Military Guard.

According to historical records, Li was extremely good at painting landscapes, buildings, Buddhist themes, flowers and birds. He applied bold and bright green and blue in his landscape paintings and defined mountains and rocks with gold outlines. Unfortunately, most of his artworks have been lost over the centuries.

His son, Li Zhaodao, was also an acclaimed painter known for his consummate skills in the Green and Blue Landscape genre. Like his father, he was also a government official and although he had never reached the rank of general, he was known as Great General Li the Junior, which put him on the same level of his father.

One of Li Zhaodao’s paintings, “Emperor Xuanzong’s Journey to Shu,” has long been deemed the best example of the Green and Blue Landscape genre. Shu is the ancient name of Sichuan, a province in southwest China known for its precipitous mountains and rocky paths.

The 55.9×81cm ink and color on silk scroll is dominated by tall, steep green and blue mountains with white clouds floating near the peaks. Close to the bottom right corner of the painting an entourage is traveling along a winding, bumpy road.

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In the lower right corner, the emperor is seen dressed in a red robe and riding a horse. The painting depicts Emperor Xuanzong’s flight to the Shu area (in today's Sichuan province) to seek refuge after he abandoned the Tang capital Chang’an (today's Xi’an city in Shaanxi province) during a revolt. The artist deliberately made the figures small to give a sense of scale to the towering peaks in the background.

The scene depicts Emperor Xuanzong’s flight to the Shu area to seek refuge after he abandoned the Tang capital, Chang’an (now Xi’an, capital city of Shaanxi Province) during a revolt launched by disgruntled General An Lushan.

In the painting the emperor is seen dressed in a red robe and riding a black horse.

Despite the use of bright colors, this painting was mainly created using the traditional Chinese technique of “line drawing.” Other typical Chinese landscape painting methods like cunca or dry brush rubbing and pointillism had not been introduced at that time.

This painting, now in the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei, is usually attributed to Li Zhaodao. 

Many scholars and art critics say it’s not the original, but a remake made during the Song Dynasty (960-1297). Nevertheless, they all concede this piece provides important clues to the Green and Blue Landscape paintings created by Li Sixun and his son more than 1,300 years ago.

明皇幸蜀图 (mínghuáng xìngshǔ tú)

Artist: Li Zhaodao

Year: Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907)

Type: Ink and color on silk

Dimensions: 55.9 cm × 81 cm

Location: National Palace Museum in Taipei



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